Sucking is a natural reflex for babies. They start to develop and practice it even before they are born. Sucking is a normal part of development that is comforting to children well into their first years of life.
In fact, sucking often brings comfort even after a child no longer needs to get nourishment from a breast or bottle. Many children find comfort by sucking on hands, fingers or pacifiers. Parents often wonder if these sucking habits can create a problem for a child’s teeth or mouth.
Are Pacifiers a Problem?
During a child’s first few years, sucking habits probably won’t damage his or her mouth. But frequent and long-term sucking can cause problems. This is especially true if the habit continues after baby teeth start to fall out. Long-term sucking can cause:
- The top front teeth to slant out
- The bottom front teeth to tilt in
- The upper and lower jaws to be misaligned
- The roof of the mouth to be narrower side to side
Here are a few things to consider if your child uses a pacifier:
- Buy products that are constructed as one piece. There shouldn’t be any parts that can break off and potentially be swallowed or breathed into the lungs.
- Never fasten a pacifier on a string or necklace around your child’s neck. Your baby could accidentally be strangled.
- Don’t try to calm a fussy baby by dipping a pacifier in honey or sugar water. This will increase your child’s risk of tooth decay.
- Use positive reinforcement to encourage older children to give up the pacifier.
Early Childhood Tooth Decay: The Roles of the Bottle and Breastfeeding
Many children satisfy their desire to suck by using a bottle or sippy cup as a pacifier. Others continue breastfeeding long after it is crucial for nutrition. Frequent sucking or sipping anything other than plain water from a bottle or cup may increase a child’s risk of developing early and extensive tooth decay. While breastfeeding is a good and healthy practice, continuous breastfeeding can still increase the risk of decay.
When sugars or other carbohydrates enter the mouth, they provide food for cavity-causing bacteria. The more times a child eats, snacks or drinks in a day, the more food the bacteria get. This makes it easier for a child to get cavities at a very early age. This condition is called early childhood caries. Early childhood caries spreads quickly. It often causes pain, can lead to a dental abscess, and puts the child at higher risk of having cavities throughout life.
Tooth decay is a serious problem for young children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 28% of U.S. children ages 2 to 5 have had some tooth decay. This disease causes pain that interferes with eating, sleeping, learning and playing. Children with extensive early tooth decay may need to have root canal treatment or have teeth removed. This can be done as early as a child’s second birthday and often needs to occur in a hospital under general anesthesia.
In the earliest stages of early childhood caries, the teeth may appear to have small white spots or lines on them. These spots or lines often show up along the edges of the gums. As the disease advances, these patches become brown and chipped. This form of tooth decay can get worse very rapidly and cause severe dental problems. Parents should contact a dentist as soon as they notice these problems.
Baby teeth stay in children’s mouths long after babyhood. In fact, some of these teeth remain until children become teenagers. For this reason, it is important to keep baby teeth healthy and to stop tooth decay as soon as it is discovered. As with adult teeth, tooth decay in baby teeth can lead to pain and trouble with eating and speaking. If baby teeth are removed or lost early, other teeth can move into the space that’s left. This can cause the adult teeth to come in crowded or crooked. As with adult teeth, dental infections can become life-threatening if left untreated.
Decay can almost always be prevented by keeping the mouth healthy. This requires healthy eating, regular brushing and flossing, and visits to the dentist.
Here are several things you can do to prevent cavities in your children:
- Take your child to see a dentist no later than age 1 as a foundation for good oral health.
- Do not allow your child to walk around with a bottle or sippy cup to continually drink from or use as a pacifier.
- Whether you’re breastfeeding or using a bottle, wipe your baby’s gums and teeth with a damp washcloth or gauze pad at least twice a day.
If you have had cavities yourself, take special care to avoid sharing your mouth’s bacteria with your child. The bacteria that cause early childhood caries are typically passed from mothers to children. This can happen in many ways. For example, you may taste the child’s food with a spoon that you then use to feed your child. Or you may allow your child to suck on his or her finger after putting it in your mouth.
Make sure your local water contains an optimal level of fluoride. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay. If your water doesn’t have enough fluoride in it, ask your dentist or pediatrician how your child’s fluoride needs should be managed.
For more information on your baby’s teeth, please visit Colgate.com.